January 20, 2018

Hoping The Bucks Will Stop (Rubbing) Here At Wolgast Tree Farm

Like farmers everywhere, Wolgast Tree Farm & Apiary has dealt with conflicts concerning white-tailed deer.  We’ve never had an issue with deer eating (browsing) our Christmas trees, but buck rubs are another matter.  A buck rub is created when a male deer uses his forehead and antlers to rub up and down the trunk of a tree which scrapes off the tree’s bark and branches and sometimes even breaks the tree in half.

This buck white-tailed deer was caught in the act of rubbing a Canaan fir tree on our farm with a motion and heat-detecting game camera.  A single buck can rub many trees and cause significant tree damage in the process.

This buck white-tailed deer was caught in the act of rubbing a Canaan fir tree on our farm with a motion and heat-detecting game camera. A single buck can rub many trees and cause significant tree damage in the process.

Bucks do this as part of the white-tailed deer breeding season (also called the rut) to communicate with other deer.  Other deer not only see the damage to the tree but they smell it.  Bucks have glands at the base of their antlers and near their eyes which produce their own unique scent.  This scent is left on the tree so that other deer know who’s handiwork it is.

Just what is a buck that rubs a tree trying to say?  Well, to the other male deer he is saying something like, “See what I did to this tree?  You better not mess with me or you’ll get the same thing.  Leave all the girl deer for me!”  And to the does he is saying something like, “Look what I did to this tree.  Aren’t I big and strong?  I’d be a great father to your fawns!”

The rut for white-tailed deer generally reaches its peak on November 10th here in New Jersey, but bucks rubs are among a variety of rut activities that start long before that.  In the space of about 20 seconds a single buck can rub out years of work that we’ve put into producing an individual Christmas tree.  One year we counted over 70 buck-rubbed Christmas trees.  That’s a lot of damage, especially for a small family-owned farm like ours so we use a variety of preventative measures to keep damage to a minimum.

To help keep bucks from rubbing our Christmas trees we spray each individual tree with a deer repellant.  It's very labor intensive, but seems to work pretty well - until it rains and gets washed off.  Then we have start all over again.

To help keep bucks from rubbing our Christmas trees we spray each individual tree with a deer repellant. It’s very labor intensive, but seems to work pretty well – until it rains and gets washed off. Then we have to start all over again.

One of the things we do is use backpack sprayers to spray deer repellant on our trees in September just before bucks typically start to rub.  The label on the repellent package says the formula is only supposed to keep deer from browsing the trees (which deer around our farm don’t seem to do), but we’ve found that it seems to keep bucks from rubbing trees as well.  Spraying each tree is a big effort, but we think its worth it so long as it works.  Problem is, when it rains the repellant gets washed off and we have to spray the trees all over again.  During some seasons we’ve had to re-spray our trees five times.  That can get pretty old.

This past summer we read about a new kind of repellant that is supposedly longer lasting (up to 6 months).  They are called “Whiff Bars” and they were developed by an orchardist to prevent deer browse damage to fruit trees.  They look like those small bars of soap that hotels put out for guests.  When we opened the box that they were shipped in the aroma smelled like your great aunt’s perfume.  I know if I were a deer I wouldn’t feel like nibbling on trees that had them, but here again, our problem is rubbing, not nibbling, so whether they’ll be effective for what we want we’ll have to see.   We think its at least worth a try.

Earlier this month Len went out and attached the bars to our most vulnerable trees (Canaan, Concolor and Nordmann firs, White Pines and Norway Spruce).

Earlier this month Len tied deer repellant "Whiff Bars" to our farm's trees that are most vulnerable to buck rubs.  The Whiff Bars are supposed to keep deer from browsing the trees, but we hope they keep buck from rubbing them as well.

Earlier this month Len tied deer repellant “Whiff Bars” to our farm’s trees that are most vulnerable to buck rubs. The Whiff Bars are supposed to keep deer from browsing the trees, but we hope they keep bucks from rubbing them as well.

They look like little Christmas ornaments and we’re sure they’ll be a conversation item when folks come out to the farm and wander the fields in search of their family tree come Christmas time.  Like the deer repellant we spray, we don’t smell anything when we walk near the trees with the bars, but deer have a sense of smell that is much more sensitive than ours so its probably very apparent to them.  At least we hope that’s the case!

We like having deer around here at Wolgast Tree Farm & Apiary, but we aren’t so thrilled with buck rubs on our Christmas trees.  We hope that between spraying deer repellant and outfitting our Christmas trees with Whiff Bars that we’ll be able to make sure that the bucks will stop (rubbing) here.

Junco Joys And Other Variations On A Theme at Wolgast Tree Farm

Over 180 species of birds have been observed from the grounds here at Wolgast Tree Farm and while it’s always exciting to see a species we haven’t seen on the farm before, we still enjoy observing the “regulars.”  One of the “regulars” during the winter months are Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis). 

A dark-eyed junco belonging to the slate-colored race which is commonly seen on our tree farm during the winter months.

Dark-eyed juncos like to hang out on the ground around the brush piles and thickets we maintain on the farm. They are also frequent visitors to our bird feeders (fortified with an old Christmas tree nearby to help provide the cover that they like).  Most of the juncos we observe belong to a race known as slate-colored, but for the last two weeks we’ve been watching a bird that looks like the Oregon race of the Dark-eyed Junco, a race commonly seen in the Pacific Northwest.   

The Oregon race of dark-eyed junco that's been visiting the farm for at least the past two weeks.

We’ve seen the Oregon race on the farm before (for one day last winter), but this bird has been an almost daily visitor to our bird feeders and is a real standout as it forages among the more numerous relatives.   


Sometimes we’ll see birds that have patches of white feathers on their body that would normally be a different color.  Since these birds still have some colored feathers they are said to be leucistic rather than albino (a true albino bird would have all white feathers and have red eyes).    Birds with feathers that are abnormally white are thought to have a genetic defect that prevents melanin from being properly deposited in those feathers.  Sometimes when birds exhibit these white feathers it can be pretty discreet.  For example, below is a dark-eyed junco that has a white “eyebrow” over its left eye that photographed last week. 

A dark-eyed junco with a white "eyebrow" over its left eye caused by white feathers. The feathers are white most likely because the bird has a genetic defect that prevented melanin from being properly deposited in the feathers.

We photographed a bird last winter with the same marking which makes us think it could be the same bird but we don’t know for sure.  The majority of song birds hatched during a given season don’t live beyond a year, but some do and perhaps this bird is an example of that.  We’ll probably never know for sure.  Picking out birds with unique plumage, especially when it’s so subtle is one of the many pleasures of bird watching.  

A more obvious example of leucism that we observed on the farm a few years ago involved a red-bellied woodpecker.  We think red-bellied woodpeckers are already striking birds, but seeing one that was almost all white really caught our eye. 

This photo is lousy, but this leucistic red-bellied woodpecker was a cool-to-see visitor to our farm during the winter of 2010-2011.

We first saw the bird (a male) on Thanksgiving morning in 2010 and observed it every day up to March 25, 2011.  Then it was gone and we haven’t seen such a bird since.  If you look at the photo very closely you can see the red belly feathers that give this species its name just below where the feet are clinging to the tree. 

Early on we figured he would get picked off by a Cooper’s hawk or another bird of prey since he should have been easy to pick out, but surprisingly we actually saw red-bellieds with normal plumage get taken first.  Predation is part of the natural cycle of life, but we’d be lying if we told you we weren’t “rooting” for this bird to make it.  In fact, keeping tabs on this bird probably accelerated our own “leucistic transformation” (gray hairs) as we sometimes fretted over its fate.  Whether it ultimately got killed by a hawk or something else, or just moved on, we don’t know, but we certainly enjoyed watching him while he was here and we consider it one of the highlights of birds that have visited Wolgast Tree Farm.

Phillipsburg High School FFA Visits Central Jersey’s Wolgast Tree Farm

Members of Phillipsburg High School's FFA Chapter visited Wolgast Tree Farm last Saturday.

Members of the Phillipsburg High School FFA chapter (Future Farmers of America) traveled from their haunts in Warren County to visit central New Jersey’s Wolgast Tree Farm in Somerset last Saturday.  This was the  third year that Phillipsburg FFA has visited our farm to get trees they will use to make grave blankets, and we consider it one of the highlights of the year when they do.  They are enthusiastic, hard-working, and well-mannered kids, and they instill a lot of hope within us about the future and character of today’s young people.  That they have an interest in agriculture and the outdoors is even better!

Before they headed out to the fields to cut trees, the students got a short tour, “A Year in the Life of a

Len shows members of Phillipsburg High School FFA what bucks can do to Christmas trees with their antlers (make a "buck rub") and how we try to prevent the damage by spraying the trees with deer repellent. This didn't work as well as it might have this year because we had lots of rain that washed the repellent off.

 Christmas Tree Farmer.”  Len discussed how we plant seedlings, control weeds and insect pests, and shear Christmas trees, as well as prevent and correct damage to trees caused by male white-tailed deer.    The chapter was invited to return in the spring to get a more detailed tour that would cover how we use Integrated Pest Management (IMP) on our farm, why our farm has been certified as being “River-Friendly,” and how we’ve integrated wildlife management into our operation to enhance the kinds of wildlife that visit, while aiming to minimize wildlife-caused damage.

 After the tour, everyone rolled up their sleeves and set about to cut 25 Douglas firs, the greens from which the students will use to make grave blankets to sell as a fund-raiser. 

Phillipsburg High School FFA members hauling a Douglas fir out of the field.

It was a big job.  The trees were cut, hauled out of the fields, and the branches were removed from the trunks.  The branches were tied into small bundles, and loaded on to trucks and a trailer, and brought back to school.  What made the task especially demanding was that the trees were very big. 

Bundling Douglas fir greens that Phillipsburg High School FFA members will use to make grave blankets that they will sell as part of their annual fund raiser.

Some of the trees were close to 200 pounds each!  They had grown so large and heavy because some had double and triple trunks and weren’t suitable to be Christmas trees so they kept growing over the years. Rather than throw the trees away, they are used in other ways.  The greens from these trees are beautiful, and we have been using them to make  grave blankets and wreaths on our farm, and marketing them for the same purpose to others, like Phillipsburg FFA.

The crew of the Phillipsburg FFA bundling & loading Douglas fir greens from Wolgast Tree Farm in Somerset, NJ.

Despite being physically demanding, it was a fun day.  The students have said their visit to our farm is among their most favorite activities of the year.  From our end, we appreciate  their interest in our trees, but even more we enjoy sharing our interest in agriculture and the outdoors with others, and the opportunity to see young, industrious people in action.  It’s always a delight to have Phillipsburg High School FFA Chapter visit Wolgast Tree Farm!

The Velvet At Wolgast Tree Farm

The largest mammals that are regularly seen here at Wolgast Tree Farm are White-tailed deer.  At this time of year, virtually all of the male deer that we see (called bucks) that are at least a year of age are growing antlers.

Buck in Velvet by Norway Spruce

Unlike horns, which are permanent features of an animal’s head (like on a sheep) and are made of dead tissue just like our hair and fingernails,  antlers grow each year from a special place at the base of the deer’s skull called a pedicle, and are eventually cast off in late winter, and then regrow later in the springWhile they are growing, antlers are living tissue (true bone) covered with a special skin called velvet.  Velvet has both nerves and blood vessels that supply the growing antlers with nutrients and oxygen.  It is called velvet because it is covered with numerous fine hairs that give the skin a velvet-like feel.

 When the antlers become fully developed, the velvet dies and is rubbed off by the buck on to surrounding vegetation.  This usually happens sometime in early September before the fall equinox.

Right now though, they are growing.  Just how big they’ll get depends on the interaction of at least three factors: the buck’s age, genetics and access to nutrition.  (For the record, you can’t tell how old a deer is by counting the number of points on its antlers.  Instead, wildlife biologists will examine their teeth to determine a deer’s age).

Late Summer Buck in Velvet at Wolgast Tree Farm.

We’ve enjoyed watching the antler development on some of the deer we’ve seen around the area, even though the antlers can be used by bucks to cause problems with our trees later in the fall.   More on that in the future.

Regardless, humankind has had a fascination with antlers for eons and then some, and we are no exception here at Wolgast Tree Farm.

Monarch Magic At Wolgast Tree Farm

We’ve been seeing Monarch butterflies flying among our Christmas trees here at Wolgast Tree Farm.  The Christmas trees probably aren’t of much interest to the Monarchs, but what we have growing in between the rows of trees is: Common Milkweed.

A Monarch butterfly goes through four life stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly.  Monarchs lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed because when the eggs hatch that’s what Monarch caterpillars will feed on.  Special chemicals in milkweed are absorbed by the caterpillar when  it eats the leaves which makes the Monarch poisonous or taste very bad to birds and mammals.  It is thought that the bright orange color of Monarch butterflies serves as a warning to predators that they are poisonous and taste bad, and that it would probably be a good idea to find their next meal elsewhere.

Milkweeds are a key feature of Monarch butterfly habitat, so we like to do our part to help make our farm a place that Monarchs would like to visit as part of our wildlife-friendly, sustainable farming practices.

Earlier this spring we marked the locations of milkweed plants with bamboo stakes and flagging so we wouldn’t accidentally cut them down when we mowed between our trees. 

It’s definitely less convenient to mow around milkweed, but we enjoy the trade-off.  Having Monarch caterpillars and butterflies be part of Wolgast Tree Farm’s wildlife menagerie is one of the things that makes our farm special and we’re very proud of that fact.

Brookdale Environmental Science Lab Visits Wolgast Tree farm

Students taking the summer session Environmental Science Lab at Brookdale Community College went on a farm tour of Wolgast Tree Farm this past week to learn about wildlife on our farm, River-Friendly farming practices, beekeeping, Integrated Pest Management and how we grow Christmas trees.

One of the things we talked about was the different types of manmade nesting structures that certain kinds of wildlife will use. To the left of Len on the ground is a roofed nesting platform that can be used by Eastern Phoebes, American Robins and Barn Swallows (far left), and a larger nest box for American Kestrels, which  can also be used by Eastern Screech Owls, Gray Squirrels or Flying Squirrels, depending on the habitat where it is placed. 

Of course, no farm tour at Wolgast Tree Farm would be complete without mentioning one of our favorite cavity nesters, the Eastern Bluebird. 

A few minutes before the class arrived, Len checked a nearby nest box to make sure the fledglings that were inside weren’t old enough to be flushed from the nest box.  Confident that the nestlings would stay put if students took a peek, he placed the roof back in place, but accidentally left behind the screwdriver that he used to open the top.  It certainly didn’t keep the adults away as they returned with food to offer the nestlings.

When the class arrived and it was time to look at the nest box everyone was instructed to quietly walk up to the box and take a quick look at the nestlings.  Many of the students had never seen an Eastern Bluebird before, let alone young bluebirds still in the nest.  It felt good to be able to provide a new experience with nature in this way. 

The same thing goes for tree farming.  Many people aren’t aware of what goes into producing a Christmas tree so we provided an overview of some of the things that must be done, including shearing.  We had finished shearing our pines a week before the class visited, but we saved two so we could demonstrate how our shearing machine works.  Here Len shows how he uses a SAJE shearing machine to trim back extra growth and produce that perfect “Christmas tree shape”.  The backpack that he’s wearing has a motor with a flexible drive shaft that comes around the front and plugs into two 8-foot long blades that are sandwiched together and move back and forth to cut excess growth.  It must have made an impression since several students took out their phones and recorded his demonstration.

Said one student when Len had finished shearing, “There’s a lot that goes into growing Christmas trees.”

Indeed, there is!

Pollinators On Parade At Wolgast Tree Farm

In honor of National Pollinator Week, we’d like to show a tiny portion of the many pollinators that make Wolgast Tree Farm their home.  

Pollinators are creatures (bees, butterflies, birds, etc,) that move pollen around either within flowers or carry pollen from one flower to another.  This causes fertilization which leads to the creation of seeds and fruit.  Producing seeds and fruits is how a plant reproduces, and without pollination the plants would not be able to reproduce as well or provide the seeds, fruits and other products that we depend on.  Around the world, about 1000 plants are grown for food, fiber, medicines, spices and beverages, that need pollination in order to produce those goods.  Many popular foods that need to be pollinated include apples, strawberries, peaches, blueberries, coffee, chocolate, almonds, pumkins, tequila, vanilla and many others. 

Having a wide variety of pollinators is needed for a healthy ecosystem, too.  

Unfortunately, it seems pollinators of all kinds are declining for a variety of reasons. 

Here on the farm we try to help pollinators in a number of ways.  We allow a variety of flowering plants that provide pollinators with nectar to grow among our Christmas trees, in our our River-Friendly stream buffers and in our hedgerows.  We also made brush piles to provide various native bees with nesting sites.  We never mow the whole farm all at once, but rather do small sections at a time so pollinators have a better place to hide from predators, forage for food and reproduce. 

All of these farm practices not only benefit a wide variety of native pollinators, but benefit our own honeybees, as well.

Everyone can help create a better environment for pollinators.  Visit Pollinator Partnership at www.pollinator.org to learn about the many ways you can help reverse this trend to help these important and interesting creatures.

The Bluebird Bonanza at Wolgast Tree Farm

Among our most favorite species of birds seen here at Wolgast Tree Farm are Eastern Bluebirds.  Their gentleness, heavenly color and soothing song guarantees a smile.

It’s been a banner year for nesting bluebirds on the farm.  We’ve seen bluebirds foraging around our Christmas trees that have fledged this spring, and have at least two other nest boxes with nestling bluebirds that are getting close to fledging.  Just yesterday we saw another female bluebird bring nesting materials into another nest box.  Bluebirds usually produce two broods of young, though sometimes they’ll produce as many as three in a nesting season.

Although a variety of bird species will build nests tucked in the branches of our Christmas trees, bluebirds are one species that doesn’t.  They are known as cavity nesters and build their nest in an enclosed structure like a wooden fence post or tree with a hole that had been excavated by another bird species (like woodpeckers), or in nestboxes created by people.   We’ve put up at least ten bluebird nest boxes on the farm like this one.  They are used by bluebirds, as well as American tree swallows, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, and house wrens. 

Bluebirds usually build their nests by weaving together grasses or pine needles.  Most of the bluebird nests on the farm are made with needles from the white pines that we grow.   It feels good to not only give bluebirds housing by putting up nestboxes, but to provide the “furnishings” by growing Christmas trees.

Here’s a look inside one of the bluebird nest boxes that we put up on our Christmas tree farm.  Because the birds are snuggled close together in the nest it may be hard to count, but there are four nestlings in this box.  These birds will fledge in less than two weeks, and then spend the rest of the summer flying among our Christmas trees, eating insects and berries, and charming us with their sweet song.

PS. Learn more about Eastern bluebirds by visiting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Bluebird/lifehistory#top .

Of Bears and Bees and Electric Fences at Wolgast Tree Farm

This is not a photo of beehives in Joplin, Missouri or even beehives at Wolgast Tree Farm.   This photo was taken in nearby Bridgewater in central New Jersey after a bear destroyed an apiary. 

Most people don’t think of Bridgewater as someplace where you’d need to watch your “Ps” and “Qs” concerning bears, but bear sightings have been increasing across central New Jersey, so it’s important for everyone to learn how to minimize  conflicts with bears.

Bears can be attracted to apiaries for both honey and bee brood (baby bees still in the comb).  It has been estimated that damage by a bear to an apiary can cost $400 per hive.  It’s also emotionally upsetting for the beekeeper, and the bees don’t like it either.

An effective means of minimizing bear damage to beehives is by surrounding them with an electric fence, so earlier this month, Wolgast Tree Farm hosted a free electric fencing clinic for beekeepers. 

Greg Miller from Gallagher Fence Company gave the clinic and explained how electric fences work, how to set them up, and how to maintain them so that they’ll actually deter a bear if one attempts to get at a hive.  Handouts were also given that outlined common problems that personnel from the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife have encountered when apiaries with electric fencing failed to stop bears from destroying hives. 

 All kinds of beekeepers came out to the farm and it was a delight to meet everyone.  Hopefully, the information provided at the clinic will keep everyone’s apiary “Bear-Free”. 

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife offers a plethora of information on how to minimize conflicts with bears under a variety of circumstances (not just for beekeeping), as well as information about black bear history in New Jersey,  their biology, behavior, and more.  Visit:   http://www.njfishandwildlife.com/bearfacts.htm  to get the lowdown on these intriguing and powerful creatures of the Garden State.

It’s “Pine Time” at Wolgast Tree Farm

June is “Pine Time” at Wolgast Tree Farm.  That means pruning the pine species to produce beautifully shaped Christmas trees for the holiday season. 

The pines have put on lots of new growth this spring so they look a bit wild and woolly now.   All species of pine trees must be sheared in the month of June if we want the pines to have the classic “Christmas tree shape.”  This is different from spruces and firs which can be sheared later in the year.  If you shear pines in July, they will have poor bud set which will affect their growth next year.  Shear too early and they’ll continue to grow and have a lousy shape.   With Christmas tree farming, like all farming, timing is everything!

Shearing pines starts at the tops of the trees.  The top must have a straight center leader.  Some leaders will be naturally straight, but sometimes they will have a slight angle, or a bird (usually an American Robin) will perch on the top and cause it to lay on its side, like in the picture on the right.  Sometimes we just want the leader to have a little extra support.  We use a special hand-held device to attach a bamboo stick to the center leader using plant ribbon (see below).  This helps keep the center leader straight and give the soft new growth extra support if a bird lands on it. 

The new growth of the center leader is cut to 12 inches long, and the side branches that are right around it are cut to 8 inches.  This helps create the correct taper for the tree.   All the tops are done by hand, one by one.

When all the pine tops are done, we come back with a machine that shears the rest of the tree.  See how that’s done a little later in the month.   All the shearing is done by Len and Cathy.

June is definitely “Pine Time” on Wolgast Tree Farm!